Nonprofit Workers Need Unions, Too

Young radicals often work at nonprofits out of a genuine desire to challenge the symptoms of capitalism. But they often find that the nonprofit model rests on their own exploitation — and on preserving the political status quo.

As socialists look out at the horizon of the struggle for a radically reformed society, we should try, like good Marxists, to anticipate where and with whom conflicts are likely to arise and how we are going to deal with those challenges. The local nature of coming fights and the arenas in which we operate may be setting the stage for increasing conflict with the “nonprofit industrial complex,” which present unique and dangerous challenges and for which we need to prepare to contend with not only outright class enemies but also our erstwhile allies. We cannot contend with the nonprofit world in the same ways as capital; they enjoy legitimacy and prestige not only among progressives but among many radicals as well, and often that esteem is well deserved and rooted deeply in marginalized communities. But conflict will come, and in that conflict, a radical labor approach will be a critical tool.

Nonprofits, “Nonprofits,” and NGOs

Strictly speaking, unions and fraternal societies are “nonprofits,” both by the United Nations’ international definition of a “nongovernment organization” and the US Internal Revenue Service Code, 26 U.S.C. Section 501(c). A union is technically a 501(c)(5) organization, and a fraternal society is a 501(c)(8) organization, and the United Nations defines an NGO as, “any non-profit, voluntary citizens’ group which is … [t]ask-oriented and driven by people with a common interest[.] NGOs perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, bring citizen concerns to governments, advocate and monitor policies and encourage political participation through provision of information. Some are organized around specific issues, such as human rights, environment or health.”

But people seem to mean something specific when they talk about “nonprofits” or NGOs (which I’ll use instead of the more US-specific “nonprofit” or “NPO”). A union may be an NGO by a technical definition; but in political language at least, we tend to mean organizations which are funded not by “members” but by donors, and which serve a specific external constituency, “filling a public need.” They exist not to make profit, but to “do good” — they are considered not part of “commerce,” not economic actors, but part of “civil society.”

People go to work at NGOs because they want to “do good” — they want to give back, they want to devote their working life to providing or improving services for people who are suffering from inequity and injustice. When you look at NGOs in the big spectrum of capitalist society, they are admirable and important organizations.

And they are essential organizations for capitalism — according to a trade association of US NGOs, they represent over one trillion dollars in economic activity, which would make them alone the seventh largest nation on Earth — a civil society indeed. As you can imagine from that dollar number, there is a huge variety of “civil society” NGOs. Direct service providers (like charities), health care organizations and hospitals, charter schools, social worker services including mental health and drug counseling, housing services, legal aid clinics, etc., are a huge part of the NGO industry. There are also major advocacy and policy NGOs — think tanks and policy institutes. And of course there are hybrids, which both provide services and conduct advocacy, like AARP and Planned Parenthood.

A Problem for Marxists?

A Marxist looking at the NGO industry should naturally be a little confused. Capitalism does not long abide formations that challenge its dominance. The onslaught against unions accelerated in the 1970s, but its roots went back to not long after unions were legally formalized in the mid-1930s — the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. For a brief period, between the late 1930s and early 1980s, unions had enough strength to maintain a peace with capital, but it has been war ever since. But the NGO industry has not generally been the focus of a similar type of assault. By and large, capital abides NGOs — to a point. Why? What is the role of the NGO in capitalism?

In an excellent short piece for, Erica West summarizes the role of NGOs by reference to an anthology on what some activists call the “nonprofit industrial complex:”

[The nonprofit industrial complex is] a set of symbiotic relationships that link political and financial technologies of state and owning-class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements.

Put another way, capitalism produces an immense, interlocking set of inequities suffered by working-class, poor, and otherwise marginalized peoples. Broadly, NGOs transform some amount of excess capital into services to prevent the experience of exploitation from becoming too severe. At the same time, the nature of their funding and management structure subjects these organizations to the conditions of grant-funding.

Two obvious-enough examples: first, to qualify for the tax-exempt status under the IRS code that defines a “nonprofit” in the US, nonprofits cannot engage in overtly political activities; even 501(c)(4) advocacy organizations are limited in terms of how much nakedly political activity they can engage in.

Second, and perhaps even more to the point, in the acute competition to qualify to receive donor and government grant money, the NGO industry has developed a professionalized class of executives, grant-writers (i.e., fundraisers), lawyers, and compliance officials. This class of “NGO professionals” are linked together through professional associations, funding networks, academic programs, and conference circuits. The professionalization of this class results in a standardized culture, professional approach, and vocabulary. And wherever a profession comes into being, so does a material interest in protecting an industry.

In the US, the first postgraduate programs in “nonprofit management” emerged in the early 1980s and exploded in number over the next three decades. Today, there are numerous “nonprofit management” programs just at Chicago-region universities, including Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business. These programs graduate thousands of NGO professionals who are trained in raising money, complying with grant conditions, and pitching “social entrepreneur” initiatives to big foundations and corporations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this class of “nonprofit professionals” is growing exceedingly fast — with an expected 18 percent increase between 2016 and 2026 — and in 2016 employed 150,000 people at a median salary of $65,000. The BLS defines these jobs as people who “manage workers who provide social services to the public.” With 150,000 managers, you can imagine the size of the workforce itself, estimated to be 12.3 million people in 2018. Between 2007 and 2012 (prime recession years), while private sector employment plummeted by more than three million overall, NGO employment grew by almost one million.

Between roughly 1975 and 2008, the US population grew by about 80 million people. At the same time, the number of government workers — workers who by and large “provide social services to the public” — grew from about 13 million to 20 million. Now, the number of NGO workers rivals that 20 million figure.

There are deeper Marxist analyses of NGOs that West discusses in her piece, with reference to the Italian Communist theorist Antonio Gramsci. This line of thinking is that NGOs serve a critical ideological role, both creating the ideology that capitalism is essentially good but only requires a sufficient number of “do-gooder” organizations to plug the gaps, and bleeding off the energy of those do-gooders by refocusing them from potentially radical work and attaching them to an interest in the status quo. While this is no doubt true, we don’t even need to go too deep into theory to understand the unique challenge NGOs present to socialist organizers engaging struggle. The numbers above tell us the story: NGOs are doing important work addressing the failings of capitalism, but are doing so through the voluntary contributions of capital and mediated by a professional class of managers. As the ruling class has intensified their attacks on the working class — with profits exploding as wages stay stagnant, slashing of the welfare state, and evisceration of unions — it is the NGO industry that has been tasked with mopping up the mess capitalism creates.

Why There Will Be Conflict

It’s important for socialists to understand that the NGO industry is immense and heterogeneous, and that criticism of the industry “as a whole” does not mean criticizing every NGO that exists and with whom they will often work. This is not a broadside against every NGO. As the most obvious example, DSA is itself a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. In a lot of communities, urban and rural, NGOs engage in organizing and advocacy work that constitutes the most radical work being done there, without which the material circumstances of people would be measurably worse.

There are obviously differences between a neighborhood NGO that advocates for fair housing or public schools on the one hand and Advocate Health Care, the largest hospital chain in Illinois with billions of dollars in revenue, on the other. Between those poles are an immense number of groups with whom socialists will want or need to partner with in coalition around particular issues, but with whom they will inevitably go into conflict.

Basically, socialists need to anticipate when their demands escalate beyond the scope of what the NGO management class is able or willing to agree to, either for ideological or practical reasons. NGOs, just like any other organization, are bound to their material interest, and since they live or die on foundation and government grants, there will often be a foreseeable point where the demands of an anti-capitalist movement advocating for fundamental change will threaten the material existence of an NGO — and the personal material interest of its management.

A housing NGO that both manages low-income housing and advocates for increased funding for affordable housing is a “good” NGO that may happily enter into a coalition with a socialist formation. There is a shared interest in attacking the for-profit housing industry. A practical limit may be reached, however, when socialists escalate demands to decommodifying housing and building not more privately managed “low-income” housing but publicly owned and managed housing. This is the point where an NGO may turn against their coalition partners as putting “idealist” demands ahead of “practical” demands, that just so happen to threaten an important source of funding, political relationship, or their issue turf.

A community health care NGO can be an invaluable partner in advocating for increased funding for mental health or reproductive services. In many ways they are irreplaceable, because as direct service providers they will inevitably have a broader experience and expertise in working with a given constituency. At the same time, providers like this live and die on relationships with city and state bureaucrats and elected officials who draft appropriations bills and design grant programs (and keynote fundraisers). They may be thrilled to cooperate on a campaign gathering signatures to support increases in funding or to be part of a coalition that drafts model legislation to create or improve a program. When the day comes for that coalition to start showing up at the offices or homes of recalcitrant legislators, they may naturally recoil. That type of direct confrontation can fray the political connections that are needed to protect funding streams and connect them to major donors.

The inverse plays out: a politician (or major donor) targeted by radical organizers may appeal to their connections on NGO boards to provide cover for their “moderate” position on a spending bill or hot-button issue. The executive director of a locally beloved and relied-on NGO can vouch for them as somebody who cares about the issue and is a reliable “partner.”

And socialists beware: it is much easier (and more fun) to bird-dog and call out a millionaire landlord or hospital CEO than the staff of a social service NGO who, day in and day out, are paid a low wage to provide a desperately needed service to people in need. NGOs like this often employ locals and are the primary point of contact, even before government, for provisioning needed services. A dispute with them may not only play poorly with the media and political class (and thereby voters), but also with neighborhood residents who have positive relationships with that organization.

Then there is the problem of “turf,” particularly in big-city contexts where dense thickets of advocacy and political NGOs exist and have existed for years around particular issues or in particular neighborhoods. Socialists moved to address some particular issue may find themselves held off by long-established NGOs who have worked on an issue for years, and who see a resurgent and more radical approach to the issue as threatening “turf” that has been the justification for grant funding.

Radical organizers addressing the issue — often without staff and in a member-driven way — could be taken as a threat to their model and the justification for their funding, especially if local funders or politicians no longer see them as the more effective vehicle for moving demands. A self-funded, member-driven organization is capable of freely making radical demands in service of a big-picture vision of ending exploitation; an NGO encumbered by grant restrictions and sensitive political relationships may bristle at being seen as less willing to attack inequality. It can cause restiveness among their constituency and staff. And when these NGOs bristle, the type of attacks they’ll turn against socialists’ formations can be extremely damaging: accusations of socialists being outsiders, being relatively privileged, being unserious, risking important services in service of “pie in the sky” ideals.

How do we contend with this problem, when a one-time partner on a given issue wants to put the brakes on escalating demands, or worse, starts providing cover for rich donors or powerful politicians who we see as impediments to radical change?

Why That Conflict May Come First

Given the early days of the resurgent socialist movement, well before we are in a situation of confronting the biggest and meanest elements of capital on a large scale, socialists will likely be facing off with large portions of the NGO industry. This is, first, because we are already in contact with them, sometimes on good terms and sometimes on bad terms. But it is also because the NGO industry is an industry, and its structural model is raising money in large blocks from various sectors of capital, or from a government that is essentially bourgeois in character. As socialists make more acute demands that threaten capital, we will begin to touch on the self-interest of an industry, and material self-interest will always represent the practical limit of solidarity. Capital will call on the industry that in large part relies on their largesse, and whose existence may be threatened by a political situation that seeks put power in the hands of working-class people and weakens the social power of big donors and individual bourgeois politicians.

It’s important to, again, refer back to the Marxist analysis. When any given NGO begins to react to a perceived threat to their self-interest as an organization (and to the jobs of their leadership and employees) they are not being immoral or acting in bad faith. From their point of view, the reaction is natural. They have a responsibility to their staff of employees; they have relationships in communities that many people depend on. It may well be that only a radical change can permanently fix the problems they address. But in the meantime, they have a responsibility to keep people’s jobs and continue critical services to the community. In some ways they have little choice but to circle the wagons to protect themselves.

Between the service providers who have absorbed the functions of government, “advocacy” NGOs who are averse to radical direct action, and corporate-front NGOs like hospital chains and charter school networks, the localized and issue-focused nature of socialist organizing work sets the stage for occasional confrontation with NGOs. In many cases, there will be more radical NGOs on our side; just as often NGOs will see that radical organizing as a threat: to their influence, to their funding, to their very existence, for example where a service should be returned to government rather than privatized.

Socialists need to be prepared for this type of conflict. It will not be of the same character as conflict with the naked face of capital: it will be a conflict with individuals who are essentially doing good on a day-to-day basis, often for less pay than they would get in the for-profit sector, with organizations that have material connections to exploited constituencies, and have the trust and respect of neighborhoods, communities, cities, and the media and political class, and are seen as having progressive bona fides.

The NGO Industry Is Still an Industry

Radical organizers of color in particular have struggled with how to contend with NGOs, which can offer jobs, prestige, connections, and political power while at the same time dampening the radical fervor needed to bring about change. In the anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, organizers and activists with deep experience in NGOs lob a number of complaints at and potential solutions for the NGO problem.

A Brooklyn-based group of young women of color, Sista II Sista (SIIS), detail how relying on grant-funding stifled their autonomy and their more radical work in the wake of 9/11 — specifically, anti-war and anti–police violence work. Along with grant-funding came a need to design internal programs that met grant conditions, determining the direction of the organization and hiring decisions; it required site-visits from funders, designing campaigns around “deadlines” that required certain “deliverables” that could be shown to funders. All of this created a momentum within the organization that stripped their radical autonomy and required an ever-increasing funding base. Eventually, they made the decision to turn away from the need to raise $300,000 a year and instead become a grassroots-funded organization that therefore would have freedom of action.

In other words, this is not a new problem for radicals. The problem of the “nonprofit industrial complex” has been roiling for decades. And often it is people who work inside NGOs that understand the problem best and are its most intense critics — even if their jobs require them to express that criticism quietly. It stands to reason that while NGOs as institutions may come into conflict with socialist formations, often their workers are natural allies.

For many socialists who work or have worked for NGOs, this could go without saying, but it is important to stress. People are attracted to NGO work out of a desire to do good and make change, only to find, when they arrive, that the workplace demands excessive hours, low pay, and sometimes even dangerous conditions. All this while their NGO leadership is primarily concerned with maintaining and developing relationships with the wealthy and powerful who determine whether their organization can live to fight another day.

In the case of SIIS, the staff and constituency of the NGO were powerful enough within the organization to meaningfully participate in the decision-making of the organization and sever it from the funding sources that were stifling their work. This is not always the case.

NGO Workers and Their Conditions

Recall that one of the functions of the NGO industry within capitalism, intentional or not, is that it directs the energy of especially young workers away from radical work and towards “professionally managed” service. The implication is that within NGOs, whether they are health care providers, charter schools, or advocacy groups, there are groups of workers who are often overworked and underpaid but with an incipient ideological commitment to radical change. They believe in the “mission” of their organizations, and dedication to that mission is often how they are moved to accept poor pay, poor working conditions, abusive management, and constant compromise of theories of change.

NGOs address themselves to various constituencies, very often marginalized and oppressed groups. At the same time, NGOs are often notoriously bad employers, exploiting the idealism, youth, and energy of their workplace, as well as the sense of “mission,” to underpay and overwork their employees.
This contradiction is important to consider. NGOs do critically needed work providing services to and advocating for the marginalized and oppressed, but do so while exploiting their workers in high-turnover workplaces and dampening their most radical structural demands.

The impetus for the publication of the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, from which the story of Sista II Sista comes, was an incident where the Ford Foundation, a major funder of advocacy-style NGOs, pulled major funding from INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, apparently in retaliation for INCITE issuing a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. This required INCITE to revisit their planning and, ultimately, to realize that major grant funding was limiting, just as much if not more than aiding, their ability to be effective advocate for marginalized groups.

In the case of INCITE, the NGO leadership was determined and radical enough to stick to their guns: not all NGOs are so lucky, and often only a radicalized and organized workforce can play that role. But NGO workers cannot be expected to take a stand when their work life is exhausting, insecure, and exploitative.

The working conditions of nonprofit workers, whether in direct service, community organizing, health care, or education, represent the value of that service and advocacy work. When they are exploited, overworked, and when turnover is high, the implication is that the value of that work is low. Resting as it does on this hyper-exploitation, many NGOs expend significant effort to convince their workers that they aren’t workers in the normal sense of that word.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. When workers in nonprofit industries try to organize for their self-interest, to have a voice in how the organization addresses issues and engages with various constituencies, the mask comes off. NGO employers can be notorious and often craven union-busters, as ideologically committed to the supremacy of professional managers as any corporate HR department. When these committed young workers move into struggle themselves, there is an invaluable opportunity for radicalization and an understanding of how social relations — employer/employee — are the ultimate decider of ideology. The NGO executive director who rails against the evils of poverty and capitalism’s excesses can suddenly become quite hostile to worker power when his own employees try to assert their power.

For social service agencies, working conditions are also the conditions under which services are provided. So, workers inside NGOs are often the most credible critics of those NGOs. When you underpay social workers at an NGO, you are undervaluing the clients of those social workers. When your NGO takes an ICE contract and makes workers complicit in mass deportation, you are making a statement about who your constituency is.

In contending with the NGO industry, socialists can typically ask for no better allies than the workers in those NGOs themselves. And given the often-exploitative working conditions for front-line workers in those organizations, it is a group that is ripe for radicalization.

Examples abound, with the most high-profile likely being the increase in charter school organizing in Chicago. Locally there is also the example of nurses at Howard Brown Health Care, a health care NGO that serves primarily working class LGBTQ+ patients. In the not-distant past, the staff at Planned Parenthood in Colorado attempted to unionize. In all of these cases, and innumerable others, the management fought unionization and worked hard to preserve “management prerogative.”

But We Should Care About NGO Workers

Ironically, there is a critique of the idea of expending effort radicalizing and organizing among NGO staff from two strains of Marxist or Marxist-adjacent radicals that would generally consider themselves at odds. On the one hand are the supposedly “muscular” sort of Marxist who sees NGO workers as not “strategic” and as relatively privileged and therefore unworthy of radical attention, when compared to, say, production workers. On the other are the ultraliberal strain who would be reticent to engage in conflict with NGOs who have heft and prestige in facets of liberation politics (as some call it, “identity politics”) or environmental justice politics.

How anybody could look at a trillion-dollar industry that largely has subsumed the public sector and not see an important group of strategic workers is somewhat baffling. The fact that many NGO workers may have college degrees or certificates, or work behind desks, simply reflects the change in the US economy, which has reoriented into a service economy. What’s more, the NGO industry lives on both government grants and excess capital. Organizing workers within NGOs places an internal check in how that excess capital is mobilized to patch up the system and preserve the ideology of capitalism. Radical worker organizations within the NGO industry can fundamentally limit the power of the professional class to determine how that excess capital and government money is used.

When the CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk was under fire for giving money to Republicans at the same time as Tesla was engaging in union-busting at its production facilities, he asked Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, to publicize his giving to the organization to provide him political cover. When Brune complied, a group of organized workers within the organization pushed back publicly, culminating in the Sierra Club releasing a statement of support for workers at Tesla’s Buffalo plant organizing with the United Auto Workers. This was a literal expression of the solidarity of workers within the Sierra Club with the workers at Tesla, in direct opposition to the wishes of a wealthy donor to the organization.

The NGO industry even down to the local advocacy level, as the experience of SIIS shows in case study, is given position and momentum by capital in the form of foundation and the bourgeois state grants. Radical worker organizations inside NGOs can not only alter the course of those organizations, but provide for substantive, effective, and protected critiques from those who share the connections with and trust in communities.

Some Marxists draw the wrong lessons from this tendency to remove labor exploitation from the language of anti-oppression work that in the absence of radical formations tends to come from the NGO class: specifically, these Marxists confuse the fact that the NGO professional class so often hypocritically uses the language of liberation politics, for the proposition that liberation politics is itself anti-Marxist. This of course is not the case; liberation politics does not conflict with class politics at all; in fact, class struggle in the real world requires liberation politics because exploitation is uniquely experienced by workers in oppressed identities, and so therefore specific strategies of class struggle are needed to fight that exploitation.

Liberation Politics and NGO Allies

Socialists will come into ready contact with NGOs of different types — direct service providers and advocacy groups — because they tend to organize in areas of recognized oppression and exploitation of working-class people. Open conflict over principles and strategies with these organizations can be very damaging for a nascent socialist formation.

Socialists supporting the organizing of an NGO’s workers due to that NGO’s workplace policies and failure to meet greater radical principles can “look bad.” It is easy to imagine: socialist organizers criticize a housing nonprofit for resisting a union drive and taking money from developers to manage properties, a point of contention with their workers. The leadership of the NGO comes out publicly accusing the socialist group of being outsiders, of being privileged and unconcerned with the welfare of the marginalized constituency they have served for years.

Socialists need to be thoughtful and careful in how we partner with groups and organizations doing radical work. To build broad coalitions, it is important to build trust and solidarity through mutually reinforcing work. Show up, listen, seek out, and recognize the expertise and experience of people who have been working on an issue or in a community longer. We cannot expect to bring broader and broader circles of people into socialist groups just by knocking doors; it can only happen through a slow and deliberate process of building solidarity through mutual struggle and respect. That is how we can grow a multiracial working-class movement.

For ultraliberals who are skeptical of the importance of labor, the thought of provoking conflict with NGOs that often enjoy wide support in areas of liberation politics, all to benefit their workers, is in reality just an echo of the arguments often used by NGO leadership themselves: that the “mission” takes priority over the welfare of workers. This fundamentally misunderstands the interlocking nature of class struggle and anti-oppression/liberation politics.

It is precisely because so much of the NGO industry addresses itself to the symptoms of oppression — discrimination in housing, discrimination in health care, environmental racism, reproductive justice — while at the same time resting their model of change on hyper-exploitation of workers in alliance with capital that a strategy of radicalizing and organizing with workers inside this trillion-dollar industry is a critical way to show how the labor movement is tied so closely to liberation politics. In the NGO industry, workplace conditions represent the priority of fighting oppression. There is maybe no other location in the US economy where the intersectional nature of labor struggle and anti-oppression/liberation politics is so clear.

When teachers organize in charter schools, it is because teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. When nursing home workers organize, it is because their working conditions are literally intersecting with the quality of care that seniors receive. When mental health and drug treatment counselors organize their workplaces, they are organizing the places of healing. When young activist organizers for a large environmentalist group organize for better working conditions, they are taking a stand that environmental justice requires organizing in the field, not just PR strategies. These expressions of worker self-interest can and should be radicalized to organize for the common good.

The idea is not to tack on a labor demand to check a “labor matters” box. It is recognizing that in a capitalist society, oppression shows itself in the distribution of commodities and services that determine quality of life. That distribution happens through the labor of human beings. In the late-capitalist United States, that labor is largely housed in an NGO industry so large it constitutes the seventh-largest economy on Earth.

Anti-oppression organizing is therefore tied inherently to radical labor organizing: only when the workers who are on the front lines of addressing the day-to-day symptoms of oppression and exploitation have control of their workplaces will that work be properly valued. Bringing those workers into a broader working-class movement builds the type of multiracial, intersectional class struggle that twenty-first-century late capitalism requires.

Socialists have to plan their political work strategically, for small victories that build to ever-larger ones. There is no point in pretending there will not be conflict with groups, formations, and organizations that mostly agree with us. If our program is to transform the world and invert political power, it is inevitable. We should plan for it, learn from it, and engage in that conflict in good faith and with courage.